Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Love and money in the New York art world

with 2 comments

I’m not sure when I first realized that I wanted to write a novel about art, but living in New York certainly had something to do with it. I spent my first few years out of college at a financial firm in Times Square, working with investors and researching ideas for new investment funds. This particular company had its origins as a quant shop, breaking markets down to raw numbers and crafting computer models to take positions and manage risk—an approach that, needless to say, would be sorely tested a few years later. Around the same time, several art funds were announced with great fanfare, buoyed by rising prices and demand from wealthy investors who saw art as just another asset class. Most of these funds would be hit hard by the downturn, with one of the most prominent launches going down in flames. But at the time, I was fascinated by the question of what would happen if you applied quantitative investment techniques to valuing, say, a Rembrandt or Van Gogh. (For what it’s worth, I soon concluded that art investment would be a great basis for a novel, but not a viable business.)

I was also fascinated by the art world itself. Living in New York, you’re surrounded by contemporary art, and I spent a lot of my free time wandering through galleries and museums. (I became particularly intrigued by the figure of the gallerina, the sphinxlike female employee who occupies the front desk of most fashionable art galleries in Soho and Chelsea.) The art world, I began to realize, was nothing less than a point of collision between two very different kinds of people: those with the talent to make art, who are drawn to their work for anything but practical reasons, and those with the means to own it, who generally acquire their wealth in more pragmatic ways. Between the artists and collectors stands a third group, the art dealers and traders, who take their cues from both, and need to be especially smart, ambitious, and competitive. I’d already been intrigued by this dynamic at the company where I worked, which employed writers and artists—often in the mailroom—side by side with investment analysts. And it gradually occurred to me that there was a novel to be written about the tension between these two ways of seeing the world, which also seemed to dramatize some of the forces at play in my own life.

Of course, just because you have a general idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have a story yet. And I took a number of wrong turns before I figured out what my plot would be. Initially, I wanted to write a novel about an art critic, which I thought would fit nicely with my own background and interests as a writer. Along with my research on art investing, then, I read a lot of art history and criticism, and came up with a story about a critic who becomes obsessed with John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Madame X, and is drawn from there, inevitably, into a web of deception and intrigue. I spent a good six months on this project, repeatedly writing and revising the first fifty pages, before finally abandoning it as unworkable, leaving myself with a lot of raw material but nothing resembling a draft. Looking back, I don’t think that the story was a bad one: I simply lacked the necessary work habits—I didn’t know how to outline, for instance—as well as the time to devote to fiction. And it wasn’t until I finally quit my job that I really learned how to write a novel.

I didn’t return to my art world story right away. Instead, I spent two years writing a novel about India, which I still hope to publish one day, although it didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted. It was only then, as I began to look around for another project, that I remembered my earlier idea. I found that the Madame X plot no longer spoke to me, but the setting did: as I looked over my notes from several years before, I realized that the art world would provide the material for an infinite number of stories. All the themes I cared about as a writer were here: the tension between art and money, the limitations of the rational way of viewing the world, and above all, our need to find order and meaning where it may not exist. A work of art, after all, is only some paint on canvas: its value arises from the meaning that people attribute to it, turning it into an object with the potential to inspire love, hate, envy, and obsession.

I had my setting, but I still needed a story. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how the search for a story took me in directions I never could have expected, until I finally ended up, much to my surprise, in Russia.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2012 at 10:38 am

2 Responses

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  1. Such an interesting window into your creative process. I look forward to reading the next installment.


    February 28, 2012 at 8:50 pm

  2. Glad you’re enjoying it! Believe me, there’s a lot more on the way…


    February 28, 2012 at 9:07 pm

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